Saturday, December 24, 2005

To Some in Turkey, a Kurdish Beer Has the Flavor of Aversion

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service

Friday, December 23, 2005

ISTANBUL -- Even before the bloody head of a sheep turned up on the brewery doorstep, the makers of Roj beer had reason to suspect their light, malty lager might not be to everyone's taste.

Roj proudly identifies itself as "Kurdish beer." Brewed in Vienna, its Turkish import application has been pending for 18 months, three times the norm. (

There was the hate mail, a virulent torrent of insults invoking mothers, sisters, dogs, blood and "dreamers like you."
There was the knock on the door of the brewer's Istanbul representative, who was taken from his house one evening in late September by Turkish security officers and interrogated till dawn.
And there was the remarkably long time Turkish officials were taking to consider the request to allow Roj into their country.
Brewed in Vienna, Roj is proudly identified on its cans as "Kurdish beer." And Turkey, which fought a bloody civil war against Kurdish separatists, is a country where such an expression of ethnic identity until recently might have resulted in arrest, and apparently still carries a certain risk.
"My life is in danger, I think," said the company's managing director, N. Keske, so spooked by threats he asked that his full name not be published. "This is your last warning," read the note under the sheep's head.
Bringing Roj to Turkey makes sound business sense. No one knows for certain how many Kurds live here -- the question is too sensitive to include on a census -- but with estimates running from 10 million to 15 million, it's easily more than any other country.
Yet what the import effort has tapped so far is the reservoir of mistrust accumulated over decades of conflict between the Turkish state and its largest minority. The mistrust erupted into civil war in the 1990s, when Kurdish guerrillas battled to separate the country's eastern reaches from a central government that denied Kurds the right to give babies Kurdish names, much less "a sip of freedom," the slogan on a bottle of Roj.
Today the fighting is sharply reduced, and Turkey's elected government has taken official steps to accommodate a Kurdish identity, largely because of pressure from the European Union, which Turkey is attempting to join. Last month Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that there was room for ethnic identity within the concept of Turkish citizenship, a bold declaration in a country that historically has enforced Turkishness as the only acceptable identity.
But that doesn't mean Roj will be sold in Turkey.
"I wouldn't advise it," said Filiz Telli, who was sharing a Turkish brew with a co-worker in an Istanbul bar. "And I think a lot of people think like me."
Telli testified to the view that the "Kurdish problem" had moved from the military sphere to the social. The fighting that leveled thousands of villages in Turkey's overwhelmingly Kurdish southeast set off a migration to the cities of the west and north, where Kurds are often viewed as outsiders.
"To say the least, if we were to dress up . . . and go to an environment where the Kurds are, we would feel uncomfortable," said Telli, curling a lip.
"And whatever sector, they just jump in, regardless of whether they know the job," said Senay Badem, her friend.
"It's not only in Istanbul," Telli added. "Go to any nice place and they're either running it or managing it or working there."
Such antipathy is widespread. In Trabzon, on the Black Sea, nationalist mobs assaulted Kurdish demonstrators this fall. In Fethiye, on the Mediterranean coast, Turkish ultranationalists have ominously compiled lists of Kurds by address.
"It's not only the Turkish state fighting guerrillas, the two societies are confronting one another more and more," said Murat Belge, a professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul. "This I find much more frightening than the government being oppressive. Freedom should have a better taste."
For the brewers of Roj, the problem is compounded by their beer's name. In Kurdish, Roj means sun, but the name is also used by a Kurdish-language satellite TV station that broadcasts from Denmark. Roj TV is accused of supporting the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, labeled a terrorist organization by the State Department. Last month Erdogan refused to attend a news conference in Copenhagen because a Roj TV reporter was present.
"The name is very important," said Muammer Aksoy, 28, standing amid his display of fake noses, collapsing knives and other gag gifts in a central Istanbul market. "It would be seen as separatist."
"As a businessperson, I wouldn't sell it. I see risk," said Ahmet Er, who runs the Vera bar in central Istanbul. "Because there's a situation behind it."
Keske insisted his beer -- a light lager that finishes clean -- has no political ingredients. He said that even in northern Iraq, where two Kurdish political parties control almost everything, he has resisted associations that would ease access to a natural market.
"Others are trying to politicize us," he said. "We just want to sell beer." And because anyone might buy it, he added, "it could be a unifying factor."
Yet Roj also reflects Kurdish aspirations. The "sip of freedom" slogan suggests the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, which many Kurds see as a first step to gaining the nationhood they were briefly promised after World War I. A drawing on the brewer's Web site,, shows a man chained by his wrists to a wall in one frame, and in the next enjoying a cold Roj, the chains broken.
"Well, actually, that was a present from a friend of ours who's a Serbian," said Keske, whose wife is a Serb. "He knew the sufferings of the Kurdish people."
Turkish trade officials declined to explain why Roj's import application is pending after 18 months, three times the normal processing time. But a November E.U. report singled out "the alcohol beverages sector" for limiting access to the Turkish market. One company, Efes, has 70 percent of Turkey's beer sales.
"It's not a unique problem with this beer," said Krisztina Nagy, an E.U. spokeswoman, referring to Roj.
There are, however, some people in Turkey quite open to a Kurdish beer.
"Especially if it's a little bit cheaper," said Cesur Polat, 20, sipping a tall Efes on a curb in Istanbul's Aksaray neighborhood. He gestured to the empties under a parked car and laughed. "If there was Kurdish beer we would drink even more!"
The neighborhood is a haven for Kurdish migrants, many of whom found work in the nightclubs lining the cramped side streets. There, the first question about Roj was not political.
"You call it a Kurdish beer," said Veysi Kara, as a disco ball threw lights across the bar he tended. "But how much alcohol does it have?"